A version of this review originally appeared in the Byron Shire Echo.
Grey North lives in the small town of Mary Smokes, outside of Brisbane. Grey’s mother dies giving birth to his little sister, Irene, and from this traumatic event the novel, and Grey’s character, emerges. On the night his mother dies, there is a cruel juxtaposition – fireworks and the delighted squeals of children on show rides, while Grey has just found his mother bleeding on the floorboards. His relationship with his sister begins as one of resentment, later turning to protection and attachment, as she begins to more resemble the mother he has lost.
Grey becomes involved with the boys he used to watch at night, the ones his mother called the ‘Wild Boys’, as he imagines the ‘nights of the wild boys charged with secret meaning’. He becomes close to the half-Aboriginal boy Eccleston. Grey’s father is a drunk and a failure, and Grey has no concept of the ‘heritage’ his grandmother speaks about. The past, for him, is just his mother.
Patrick Holland’s sentences are tight yet lyrical – swift, like the passing of time in this novel. Soon Grey is in his twenties and a severe kind of attachment has formed between he and his sister, Irene. This is a novel about a very small group of isolated people who have gone through trauma, change and loss, and so cling to each other – seeming casual, carefree about it at times; and at other times openly intense – desperate to hold on. The depth of their attachment is often uncomfortable for the reader, but this is because Holland never tells you too much. He gives space for the reader to interrogate the characters’ motives.
Though the novel is set in contemporary times, it feels old-fashioned, in the best possible way, and this is suitable to the themes of change, and loss. The town of Mary Smokes transforms – bulldozers, roads, shopping malls. But there is a continuance of quiet and space – an old drive-in theatre, a meteor shower, a desolate service station late at night, a paddock full of horses, the river. It also feels more like the American West, than the outback, at times – but beautifully so, in the tradition of American Gothic – in the vein of literature and film of insular, struggling, dramatically-charged lonely towns and people.
For some of the book, you are galloping along with the characters, but their issues keep resolving themselves, and you wonder, where is it all going? But you’ve forgotten about a few little plot points Holland has thrown out, and they all come together in a devastating climax. Along the way, there are incidents of theft, gambling, longing, fights, sickness, survival, narrow escapes, protection, and standing up for others. The conflict is quick and constant, almost episodic, and if I had any qualm it would just be that I would have benefited from more clues, earlier on, that bigger struggles, and changes, were afoot – but the writing and characters were certainly enough to keep me glued. The ending is unexpected, but you do feel that Grey, who as a child was ‘moved swiftly to tears and violence’, and his story, could not have resolved any other way.
I think about a book like Philipp Meyer’s American Rust, in terms of some of the setting and themes – friendship, violence, isolation and most definitely change and transience; combined with the insular, things-only-getting-worse narrative of something like the Coen Brothers’ film A Serious Man; but with selective and beautifully rendered features of Australianness, like in Matthew Condon’s The Trout Opera. The closest thing I’ve read recently is Chris Womersley’s Bereft, which would make a nice companion.
This is Holland’s second novel, after The Long Road of the Junkmailer (UQP), which was nominated for the Commonwealth Writers Prize, South East Asia Region, and won other awards. Holland grew up in outback Queensland and, as evident in the skilled descriptions of the horses and their handling in the novel, worked as a horseman in the Maranoa district and a ringer in the top end. He has traveled, studied and been published widely. I look forward to reading more from him.